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Stone crab season offers Tampa Bay restaurants a glimmer of hope

Restaurants owners are hopeful that sales for Florida’s prized crustacean will help bring business back.

Every October, Tommy Shook readies his team for the busiest time of the year: stone crab season.

In many ways, this year is no different for the general manager of Frenchy’s Stone Crab Company. The traps have been set. The orders have been placed. The phones have been ringing off the hook. Stone crab season kicks off Thursday, and by most accounts, the demand for Florida’s prized crustacean appears to be high.

But throw in a new set of stricter crabbing regulations, the economic backlash from the ongoing pandemic and a populace that still harbors anxieties about dining out, and it’s anyone’s guess how the season will shape up.

“Everything is so far up in the air,” Shook said. “It’s a wait-and-see game."

Like many other industries, Florida’s stone crab business hasn’t gone through the pandemic unscathed. When restaurants were forced into a six-week shutdown in March, eateries peddling the popular crabs lost six weeks of customers during one of the most lucrative times of the year. Facing a sudden drop in demand, some commercial crabbers ended their season ahead of the May 15 closing date. Others sold the remaining crabs to wholesalers to be frozen.

And the pandemic isn’t the only curveball for the industry: Earlier this year, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission issued a set of new guidelines for crabbers including size limits and a curbed season, citing a long-term decline in the fishery’s harvest, likely due to overfishing practices.

Frenchy's Stone Crab Company general manager Tommy Shook said demand for Florida's prized stone crab claws is already high. SCOTT KEELER  |   Times
Frenchy's Stone Crab Company general manager Tommy Shook said demand for Florida's prized stone crab claws is already high. SCOTT KEELER | Times

Stone crabs are considered one of the more sustainable types of seafood in Florida, in part because only the claw is harvested and the living crab is thrown back in the water where it is able to regenerate and live on. But the state’s stone crab population has been on a steady decline since 2000 — a roughly 22 percent drop — and the Monterey Bay Aquarium based in California, which keeps scorecards on seafood sustainability, has placed stone crab on its “avoid” list.

Factors for the species' drop-off include climate change-related events, like hurricanes and higher water temperatures, as well as overfishing practices. The commission recommends only harvesting one claw at a time from a single crab, but it’s a practice that’s not always followed, which then leaves the clawless crabs mostly defenseless against predators in the water. And the illegal harvesting of pregnant crabs, which are then 40 percent less likely to reproduce, has likely also contributed to the population’s decline.

Ryan Gandy, a research scientist with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, said the new regulations are part of the state’s ongoing effort to bring the crab population back to pre-2000 numbers, when the industry’s peak reached roughly 3.5 million pounds per season. He leads the commission’s stone crab program, which monitors crab populations in Florida.

In the U.S., 98 percent of stone crab landings are in Florida, and the majority — roughly 40 to 50 percent — come from Monroe County around the Florida Keys and Collier County from Everglades City to Naples. During a good year, many Tampa Bay restaurants source from around Dunedin up through the Homosassa and the Crystal River area.

Demand for the popular claws is usually at its highest when the season first kicks off, when anticipation for the sweet claw meat drives diners to pack seafood restaurants. A steady request for the crabs runs through Thanksgiving and then typically tapers off toward the end of the season in spring, when the crabs are less of a novelty.

Stone crab season begins Thursday and runs through May 2.
Stone crab season begins Thursday and runs through May 2.

Despite the reduced number of crab landings, Gandy said there is still reason for optimism. He said the coming season is off to an “overall good start,” and said last year’s crabbers netted about 2.3 million pounds, up from the previous year’s record-low of 1.9 million, which many attributed to a persistent red tide and the effects of Hurricane Michael.

Stone crab season has been curbed by two weeks and now ends on May 2. Among other new regulations, claws harvested must now be a minimum of 2 ⅞ inches — an ⅛ of an inch increase from the previous year. This will allow some of the smaller crabs to get bigger, meaning they will produce more offspring. Before the start of the 2023-2024 season, all plastic and wood stone crab traps must be outfitted with an “escape ring,” also called a cull ring, which are regularly used for blue crab harvesting. The rings allows smaller crabs to escape the trap, thereby minimizing the chance that they get stuck and possibly eaten by larger crabs or other predators, like octopuses.

For diners, the new regulations may mean fewer medium-sized claws on the market this year, but more mediums on the table the following year. Stone crab claws are retailed and priced by size: medium, large, jumbo and colossal.

What is still unclear is how this year’s haul will play out for restaurants, crabbers and wholesale seafood distributors if the demand for the pricy delicacy doesn’t match the supply. Though the pricing of the crabs usually remains unknown until the season’s opening day, it typically reflects a number similar to what the last year ended with.

“The big concern now is going into this season what the demand will be for claws,” said Gandy. “If the demand is down, even if there are plenty of crabs, they can’t move them, so the price could drop. If the price drops, it may get to the point where it doesn’t offset the cost for fishing.”

Stone crab claws are pictured at I.C. Shark's Seafood Market on Feb. 28, 2014.
Stone crab claws are pictured at I.C. Shark's Seafood Market on Feb. 28, 2014. [ ZUPPA, CHRIS | Tampa Bay Times ]

Most restaurant owners remain optimistic. The portend of a potentially lucrative stone crab season is offering a glimmer of hope for an industry bludgeoned by the coronavirus pandemic.

For Walt Wickman, who owns Dunedin’s Olde Bay Cafe and Hog Island Fish Camp and Safety Harbor’s Water Oak Grill, the biggest loss comes from the cancellation of the Dunedin Stone Crab Festival. The two-day event usually draws thousands of stone crab fans who travel from all across the Tampa Bay area.

This year, hosting a large festival was out of the question, Wickman said. Other stone crab extravaganzas, including Frenchy’s Stone Crab Weekend, have also been called off, though Frenchy’s restaurants are still offering discounted claw prices during the festival weekend. Despite the loss of festival revenue, Wickman says he sees an upside for restaurants and diners.

“There’s going to be a lot of extra crab on the market because the festivals aren’t going on,” Wickman reasons. Restaurants might have a better chance of attracting would-be festival goers to their businesses, he said, and at a time when restaurants will take all the extra help they can get.

To make up for some of the lost festival business, Wickman has put up a large tent at Hog Island Fish Camp as well as increased the outdoor seating area at Olde Bay Cafe. The stone crabs will also be available for takeout and delivery, a pandemic pivot many stone crab vendors are hoping will appeal to more cautious diners.

Wickman said he expects the price for medium claws to be around $25 per pound, with $35 for large claws and $45 for jumbo ones.

Wickman is not the only restaurant owner betting on an influx of stone crab lovers ready to spend their dollars on the seafood commodity.

“We won’t be able to keep them on the shelves,” said Nick Cruz, who owns Big Ray’s Fish Camp in Tampa. Cruz said he is expecting a banner year for the business — double what he sold last year. The owner of the popular seafood house says a customer boost in recent months has shown that diners are increasingly comfortable eating out, and that those who stayed in during the summer are now spending their money more lavishly.

Some are eyeing the scene with more trepidation. With the economy bruised and the speed at which it might recover still unknown, some diners prone to spending big on stone crab might be tightening their purse strings instead.

Shook, of Frenchy’s Stone Crab Company, said that because of the new regulations and because Frenchy’s restaurants have chosen not to operate at 100 percent capacity yet, he is expecting sales will be less than what they have been in the past.

“It’s been tough, but we’re still here and we’re still going,” he said. “Everybody is just hoping for the best —we’re all keeping our fingers crossed.”